Tom Holland and the Russo brothers open up about the wild world of Cherry
Anthony and Joe Russo probably could've made any kind of movie they wanted after directing 2019's record-setting box office smash Avengers: Endgame. So it's fitting that their follow-up is four different genres in one. Cherry (in theaters Feb. 26 and on Apple TV+ March 12) reteams the filmmaking brothers with Tom Holland (whom they first cast as Spider-Man) for a sprawling epic that's part romance, part wartime satire, part unflinching drug drama, and part heist flick.
Based on Nico Walker's 2018 semiautobiographical novel, which he wrote while incarcerated, Cherry follows a bright but directionless Cleveland kid who enlists as an Army medic, only to return home to a spiral of PTSD, opioid addiction, and bank robbery. "I was worried about it: How are these guys going to go from making the biggest movie of all time to a small film like this?" Holland, 24, admits. "But I look back on it, and it's been my favorite movie that I've ever worked on."
EW gathered Holland and the Russos for a new installment of our Around the Table video series (above), where the three opened up about moving from the Marvel sphere to the gritty world of Cherry. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about Nico Walker's book made you want to make this movie?
JOE RUSSO: Having grown up in Cleveland, we understand the existential crisis that the industrial Midwest has been experiencing for years, that has in a lot of ways turned it into ground zero for the opioid epidemic. [We've had] a lot of friends and family suffer at the hands of this crisis. It was a very personal, very important issue for us to examine. The book encapsulated the voice behind it in a way that we hadn't seen before.
TOM HOLLAND: When you guys first pitched me the movie, you didn't really tell me exactly what the film was about. You let the material speak for itself. Once I read the script and realized the opportunity that I'd been handed, I couldn't quite believe that you guys thought that I could do this, and that you wanted me to play this role. The opioid crisis is something I really didn't know much about. I hope we're able to shine the light on a problem that's happening on everybody's doorstep.
JOE RUSSO: We knew — and you can't cheat this if you don't have it — [Tom] has a charm that is unquantifiable. This is a very difficult character to play because if the audience doesn't go on the journey with the character emotionally, we've lost them. The character makes very difficult and unlikable choices throughout the film. Tom helps you stay invested.
ANTHONY RUSSO: The adaptation never really made sense to us until we started thinking about Tom as the lead character. That's when it all lined up for us.
Tom, did you have any hesitation about tackling such a dark role?
HOLLAND: Of course. And I think if you didn't, there would be something slightly wrong with you. I, to be honest, didn't think that I could do it. I was so excited by the idea, but then when I read the script, I really sat down and was like, "Am I really the person for this job?" I probably wouldn't have accepted the job if it wasn't Joe and Anthony making it, had I not had these two in my corner kind of guiding me through this process. If I had a wobble and fell over, they would pick up the pieces and put me back together again.
Cherry's tone can be extremely bleak, but it can also be romantic and even comedic. How did you try to find the right balance?
ANTHONY RUSSO: In all of our Marvel work as well, it was important to us not only to entertain and excite but also to make people think [and] create real jeopardy and loss for people. Joe and I think of ourselves sometimes as alchemists. We like to mix ideas and tones in ways that seem kind of incongruous with one another, because that tends to spark something new.
Did you speak with Nico Walker?
JOE RUSSO: I had two conversations with Nico. He was incarcerated at the time that we were shooting the film. The first was in obtaining the rights to the book, and the second was just a follow-up conversation. He wasn't intrinsically involved, obviously, considering the circumstances. But we did talk to a lot of consultants: soldiers who were suffering from PTSD, former addicts. We had a consultant on set who was a former addict, so that the drug use could be authentic and realistic and specific. We wanted the emotional truth of the movie to be as real as possible as well, so we drew upon our own life experiences.
The title character changes over the years. Tom, you gained and lost weight to play him at these different points. What was that physical preparation like?
HOLLAND: I think whenever you're tackling a character like this, one of the biggest aspects is physicality. Peter Parker has a kind of boyish way he moves, and I wanted to steer away from that. The task that Joe and Anthony had set [was difficult]: When we meet Cherry, he needs to be a likable 19-year-old, and that's what Peter Parker is. The thing I found really difficult was finding a different version of who that character could be. As far as preparation goes, losing the weight was the biggest thing for me.
Of the different chapters in Cherry's life — college, the Army, drug addiction, bank robbing — which was the most difficult to film?
HOLLAND: One of the hardest transitions was the schedule: We shot [the drug-addiction section], and we then went right into the portion of his life where he's falling in love with Emily [played by Ciara Bravo]. Do you remember, guys? I'd get really self-conscious, and I was like, "I don't feel like I'm doing enough, I'm not working hard enough," because we'd come from this eight-week marathon of just kicking and screaming, and I was starving myself. And then we went into this completely different style of filmmaking, which was so fun and loving and sweet.
JOE RUSSO: Yeah, this was very physically demanding on you. I mean, it's very hard to play a role this emotionally [fraught], where you're talking to people about the awful experiences that they've had in their lives, whether it's PTSD or drugs. [You're] playing that every day, in addition to losing almost a quarter of your body weight. You almost broke your ankle at one point, and you almost broke your nose at another point. It's a difficult role to play on all fronts, and not only are we directors who have worked with Tom, but we're friends. We've known him for almost a decade now, and you want to protect him.
HOLLAND: There was a great moment where Cherry is kind of losing it in the car. Joe and Anthony came to the car to give me a note, and there was blood all down my front because I'd obviously banged my nose. There was that conflicting thing where both of them were like, "Oh my God, I hope you're okay. But this looks amazing. Do you want to go again?" I was like, "I'm fine. Just roll the cameras. Let's go."
Thinking back to Tom's Spider-Man audition for 2016's Captain America: Civil War, did you have any sense then that you'd wind up making four movies together, one of which is this intense drug drama?
ANTHONY RUSSO: At the time we were very focused on what our immediate needs were.
HOLLAND: What? You didn't predict that we'd be making a PTSD drug movie later? [Laughs]
ANTHONY RUSSO: But I remember how quickly Joe and I responded to Tom as a performer. It was like an epiphany moment — that "Wow, he's it."
HOLLAND: We're shooting Spider-Man 3 at the moment in Atlanta, and I walked into the stage where I had my audition, and it was one of the strangest feelings. [I was] reliving that moment of walking in and seeing you guys, and seeing Robert Downey Jr., and I'm standing there like, "I'm now making the third Spider-Man movie." It's one of those pinch-me moments. I was saying earlier: If I woke up from a dream and none of this was real, I'd be like, "Yeah, that makes sense," because it's too crazy.